During my short stint living in central Mexico in the mid-1990s, Oaxaca topped my list of places to visit. Sadly for me, a revolutionary leftist uprising just south of Oaxaca in Chiapas prompted tourists to vacate the region in droves. I was left to focus on central and northern Mexico, busing from Guadalajara to Zacatecas, slurping steaming bowls of pozole at open-air markets, instead of sampling the foods of southern Mexico.
I was a college exchange student, kept by a host family in the foothills of the Sierra Madre in the mid-sized town of Queretaro, where I studied Spanish and the Mexican Revolution (Viva Mexico!). I ate taquitos, hand-pounded gorditas, and watermelon aquas frescas at the local markets. During that time, I never once encountered a caper. In my mind, the small, dark green berries were destined for the tuna salads of France or the puttanescas of Italy.
So when I recently found a recipe for Oaxacan chicken in caper sauce, I lifted my eyebrows skeptically. A Mexican caper sauce was completely novel to me. Adding cinnamon and cloves was even wilder. I was unsure that briny capers and the spicy-sweet ground cloves and cinnamon would gel under the acidic umbrella of the tomatillo.
What I found was that the combo works in the same way that jazz piano might jibe with classical violin, producing a vibrant and cool new harmony. And roasted tomatillos provide just the melody to make the jam session work.
Perhaps the Spanish conquistadors brought the flowering capparis spinosa to Mexico or perhaps it has always been there. Either way, I learned recently that the caper berry, salted and pickled, has a tradition in Mexican cuisine, especially in seafood dishes of Veracruz. It seems fitting that Oaxaca, the rugged home to 16 indigenous tribes with their own native tongues, would invent the aromatic, varied, and almost medicinal blend of capers, cinnamon, and cloves.
This recipe is loosely adapted from Margarita Carillo Arronte’s tome by Phaidon, "Mexico: The Cookbook." She adds to the braise sliced potato, a hearty starch that soldiers alongside the bright, acidic tomatillos and capers. In the spirit of cross-cultural exchanges, and to add a touch more elegance, I swap the potato for queso fresco polenta, which sops up the juice nicely and avoids a mushy reheating. In this version, origins and cultures melt into a piquant, savory bite.
Oaxacan Chicken with Caper Sauce and Queso Fresco Polenta
12 pieces of skinless, bone-in chicken (thighs or a mix of thighs and drumsticks)
4 cloves of garlic, skins on
4 large shallots, sliced in half with skins on
1 cup capers
½ teaspoon ground cloves
10 tomatillos, peeled and washed
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 cup of pitted green olives
2 tablespoons pickled jalapeños
1 small bunch of cilantro leaves (optional)
For the polenta (see below):
1 cup Bob's Red Mill polenta
1/4 cup (rounded) diced queso fresco
Salt to taste
Preheat the oven broiler to “high.” Line a roasting pan with foil and broil the peeled tomatillos and the skin-on garlic and shallots for eight minutes, then remove the pan and rotate the tomatillos so they get color on the bottom side and broil for four more minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and let the vegetables cool. Then, skin the garlic and shallots.
In a Cuisinart with a blade attachment, add the roasted tomatillos, peeled shallots and garlic, ground cloves, cinnamon, oregano, and capers. Blend the mix until it becomes a smooth sauce.
In a large Dutch oven, heat two tablespoons of olive oil and pour in the tomatillo sauce. Let simmer for about two minutes and then nestle the pieces of chicken into the sauce (some of the meat will still be exposed but the chicken will give up a good amount of liquid after about 10 minutes). Cover the Dutch oven partially and simmer on low for 30 minutes, occasionally stirring and rotating the chicken pieces so they are fully immersed in the sauce. Add the green olives and simmer for another 10 - 15 minutes.
Meanwhile cook the polenta according to the package instructions, until thick and creamy, adding the queso fresco halfway through the cooking time. Spoon the polenta on the plate and top it with chicken pieces, caper sauce, jalapeños, and cilantro.
I fell in love with ropa vieja, a staple of Cuban cuisine, years after I took a trip to Havana. After tasting the slow-braised chicken and peppers served with sweet fried plantain back in the States, I could see how the flavors could originate in a place as culturally vibrant as Cuba.
To my surprise, during my trip, I found simpler, less remarkable fare. The tastiest thing I ate the week I traveled there as a journalist, more than 15 years ago, was served the morning after I arrived by Mercedes, a woman with shoulder length silver hair who ran a ‘casa particular’ or special house for tourists. She served a plate of peppery scrambled eggs, perfectly moist and gooey, on fine China from the Batista era. She poured orange juice from a vintage whiskey bottle and brought me a teacup filled with strong black coffee. I sat in her dim living room with heavy curtains drawn to keep the sun from overheating the home, and ate on a vinyl, spill-proof tablecloth.
I lingered over those eggs, and the heat of the hot pepper sauce mingling with the sweet orange juice on my tongue before heading out for the day, knowing that the city sites may dazzle me more than my next plate of food. I wondered if the lack of culinary highlights had to do with the economic embargo, strangling its resources, or if maybe low wages held back a burgeoning cadre of chefs. Or perhaps, on my Lonely Planet budget, I just missed the good stuff.
Ropa vieja is a dish that matches the pace of the island: slow, like the sultry walks of young couples along the Malecon, Havana's sea wall, as the sun sinks into the Gulf. Preparing it, even with my speedy pressure cooker, takes several hours. It requires cooking the meat (beef or chicken), and then braising it into ropa vieja (“old clothes") in tomatoes, onions, peppers, and spices for another hour. The pressure cooker method has the dual purpose of cooking an entire chicken with fall-off-the-bone meat in about 25 minutes while also producing homemade chicken stock, which enhances the ropa vieja flavor. The result is everything I imagined Cuban food would be during my trip, if only I had found the right place.
Chicken and stock
1 large chicken (about 4 pounds)
1 carrot, roughly chopped
1 stalk of celery, roughly chopped
1 onion, quartered
1 tablespoon of peppercorns
1 cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf
2 cups water
½ teaspoon salt
Place all ingredients in a large pressure cooker. Close and lock the lid and bring the pressure cooker up to pressure. Cook for 22 minutes on high. Let the pressure release naturally for 5 minutes and then release the rest. Remove the chicken (reserving the stock at the bottom of the pot), let cool, and then remove the meat from the bones, shredding the meat as you go with your fingers.
Meat from one pressure-cooked chicken, pulled from the bones and shredded (see above)
1-1/2 cups reserved stock from the pressure-cooked chicken
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 Cubanelle peppers, thinly sliced
3 Anaheim peppers, thinly sliced
1 large red onion, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
2 tablespoons oregano
3 tablespoons paprika
1 pinch cayenne
1 pinch ground cloves
1 tsp salt
½ tsp pepper
2 bay leaves
2 tsp honey
1-1/2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1-1/2 cups chopped Pomi (or canned) tomatoes in their juices
Stock from pressure cooker pan (about 1 – 1-1/2 cup)
1-1/2 cup whole green olives (preferably Sicilian Castelvetrano green olives)
2 tablespoons capers
1 (or more) ripe plantain or slightly green banana, split lengthwise and fried in butter until golden brown (a cast iron pan works great for this)
In a large pot, heat the olive oil over a medium flame until hot. Add the onions and peppers and saute until soft. Add the onion powder, garlic powder, oregano, paprika, ground cloves, and bay leaves, and stir and let simmer for two minutes. Add the chicken and tomatoes and salt and pepper. Simmer on the stove top for 40 minutes. Add the green olives, capers, sherry vinegar, and honey, and simmer for another five minutes. Serve with the fried plantains.
While Paul slumbers into mid-morning on the weekends, I'm up, sipping a strong cup of darkly roasted coffee, enjoying the breeze from an open window, and planning my day. On weekday mornings, I’m happy to pair that cup of joe with Greek yogurt and a muffin. But on these more relaxed mornings, when it's just me and the red-headed woodpecker out the window alert and awake, I want to start my day with something special and delicious.
In the past, I would have dived into the nearest sticky bun or syrupy waffle. Nowadays, I shy away from the blood sugar crashes and the lethargy that follows those sugar-laden goodies. No thank you, Cinnabon! I need energy to do my four loads of laundry, shop for the day, make lunches for the week at the office, and squeeze in 30 minutes on the stair climber machine.
For months, I experimented in creating an oven-baked apple pancake that reduced the sugar and the carb load while still satisfying my craving for something sweet. I'm enamored with the result. Consider it a cross between a Dutch baby and German apple pancake with a fraction of the sugar and flour. Baked in a cast iron pan, this airy pancake for two tastes delicious and preserves my energy to tackle the day. And it's so easy to make, I'm usually pulling it out of the oven, perfectly golden brown and ready to serve, before Paul wakes up.
Oven-baked Apple Cinnamon Pancake with Lemon Zest
This is gluten free in part because I love Bob's Red Mill gluten-free oat flour (gluten issue aside). Feel free to use all purpose flour in place of gluten-free oat flour if you prefer. Both versions are great!
2 tsp lemon zest
3 TB milk
1 TB Bob's Red Mill gluten-free oat flour*
1 TB sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 tsp cinnamon
1 green apple, peeled, cored, and thinly sliced
2 TB butter**
Powdered sugar to sprinkle on top (optional - I usually go without to reduce the sugar but the presentation is lovely)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In a well-seasoned and oiled cast iron pan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the apples and stir, evenly distributing the apple slices on the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle the cinnamon on top of the apples and let the apples simmer on low for about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, in a KitchenAid with the whisk attachment, beat the eggs on high for three minutes until frothy and thick. While beater is running, add the sugar, lemon zest, and vanilla extract. Keep the beater running and add the flour and then add the milk.
Pour the batter evenly over the apple mixture until the apples are covered and the batter is poured out. Place the cast iron pan in the oven and bake for 12 minutes or until slightly golden. Remove from the oven and let sit for 3 - 5 minutes. With a small spatula or butter knife, gently lift the pancake edge all the way around the pan. The pancake should easily lift from the pan. If it sticks, it may not invert properly. Using oven-proof gloves, place a plate on top of the cast iron pan. Grab the pan's long handle and side handle, pinching the plate corners to the top of the pan. Quickly invert the plate-pan duo so the plate is on the bottom (I usually give one, quick, vigorous shake during the inversion so the cake separates quickly from the pan). The cake should fall out evenly onto the plate. (If it sticks, it may mean your pan was too dry. If using a dry cast iron pan, spray it first with cooking oil spray, then continue with melting the butter.)
*I tested other gluten-free flours and they did not work with this recipe, sticking to the pan and breaking apart while flipping out onto a plate. Substitute other gluten-free flours at your own risk!
**If you like the health benefits of coconut oil like I do, use half coconut oil, half butter. Do not use 100 percent coconut oil. This causes the batter to stick to the pan and prevents the pancake from flipping out onto a plate.
As a red wine lover also addicted to Thai food, I’m often bummed that I can’t pair lemongrass, kaffir lime, and tamarind flavors with the earthy tannins of red wine.
When I recently spotted a Cook’s Illustrated magazine recipe for massaman curry, chocked full of mild, new world chilis, I wondered if this Thai dish could serve as an exception. I made the recipe twice. It was delicious (and paired well with red wine) but it tasted more North African than Thai as testers omitted the hard-to-find Thai ingredients of tamarind paste and lemongrass to make the recipe more accessible.
My curiosity about the traditional Thai dish, and its potential to pair with red wine, grew. A jar of WorldFoods massaman curry sauce, shipped from Amazon, offered up classically Thai flavors but was sickly sweet (sugar was the third ingredient) and thick as Thanksgiving gravy. I put a spoonful in my mouth and winced. The kitchen sink disposal ate the rest.
I combed through dozens of recipes to find out more about massaman curry. Dubbed the king of curries, it distinguishes itself with Islamic and Malay origins and offers a mellow heat with complex layers of toasted mild peppers, shallot, and garlic.
Massaman curry's smoky new world chili flavor strays significantly from spicy red, green, and panang curries while still grounding itself in the bright, classically Thai counterpoints of lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and tamarind.
Once I incorporated those slightly sour, piquant ingredients back into the dish, massaman’s savory notes sang with Thai flavors. I paired it with a glass of zinfandel, and devoured it with my legs folded up on my futon, plate between my knees, relishing the flavors of Thailand. Even better: the zinfandel actually enhanced this complex curry, extending the couch time, and the bottle of wine further.
Massaman Chicken Curry with Bulgur
Most massaman chicken curry recipes add potatoes and suggest serving the dish with rice, which I avoid for reasons you can read about here. I prefer a less starchy meal so I omit the potatoes and serve it over bulgur instead, which holds up nicely to the curry flavors. Also, I strain out the fibrous (and often bitter or sour) bits of pepper skin, ginger, and lemongrass through a fine mesh strainer to produce a silky, more refined curry sauce.
Massaman Chicken Curry
2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch pieces
4 dried birds eye Thai chiles
6 dried guajillo chiles
5 large shallots, skin on, split in half
1 head garlic, cloves separated, skins on
1 six-inch piece of lemon grass, diced
1/2 cup peeled and diced ginger
1-1/2 tsp five spice powder
1 tsp cumin
½ tsp pepper
1 TB tamarind concentrate
3 kaffir lime leaves or 1-1/2 TB lime juice
3 TB coconut oil
1 TB fish sauce
2 TB water
2 cups unsalted chicken stock (if using salted, reduce added salt at the end for seasoning)
1 can low-fat coconut milk (full fat coconut milk works well too but produces an oily sauce)
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tsp of salt (or to taste)
1 cup Bob’s Red Mill quick cooking bulgur (follow package instructions)
1 TB cornstarch
4 TB water
¼ cup cilantro leaves
¼ cup peanuts, chopped
2 TB sesame seeds, toasted
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. On a cookie sheet lined with foil, toast the whole guajillo peppers for five minutes. Cool, stem, and seed the peppers. Tear them into pieces and add them to a food processor with the bird's eye chilis. Blend the chilis into a fine powder.
Meanwhile, on the same foil-lined cookie sheet, broil the shallots and garlic cloves for about 8 minutes until blistering. Remove the pan from the oven and let the shallots and garlic cool. Once cool enough to handle, peel them and add them to the food processor along with the lemongrass, ginger, five spice powder, cumin, black pepper, tamarind concentrate, kaffir lime leaves (or lime juice), two tablespoons of the coconut oil, fish sauce, and water. Blend until it becomes a smooth paste.
In a medium-sized sauce pan, heat the remaining tablespoon of coconut oil and add the curry paste. Let the paste sizzle in the oil while stirring for about 30 seconds. Add the chicken stock and continue stirring. The texture should be like a thick soup. If too thick, add more chicken stock. Bring to a simmer and then turn off the heat. Using a fine mesh strainer and a separate bowl, strain the liquid through the mesh strainer and into the bowl, pressing the solids into the strainer to squeeze out all the liquid. It can take up to 10 minutes to whisk the solids into the strainer to produce the liquid. You should end up with about a half cup of solids, which you should discard.
Return the strained liquid to the pan and add the coconut milk, chicken, sugar, and salt. Simmer on low until the chicken is cooked through, about 20 minutes. If the sauce is too thin, combine cornstarch and water into a paste and stir into the sauce. Cook bulgur as instructed on the package. Serve the chicken curry over the bulgur and garnish with cilantro, peanuts, and sesame seeds.
This morning, I bit into this warm, raspberry oat muffin slathered with butter, and tasted a nutty sweetness with tart berries. I didn't once think about the fact that it was also gluten free. That’s how eating gluten free should be in my mind. No gummy textures or odd flavors that remind you that you're eating healthy. Just good, old-fashioned deliciousness.
As more research points to gluten's inflammatory effects even on those not afflicted with celiac disease, cutting back on bready treats when possible seems like a good idea. But gluten-free baking is tricky. The lighter weight and varying texture of gluten-free flours often render muffins flat or chewy, leaving a lackluster final product.
I've experimented for months on creating a gluten-free muffin I would crave as much as my recent favorite blueberry amaranth-wheat muffin. In some batches, I used equivalent measurements to wheat muffins and got only enough batter to fill 10 muffin cups. In other batches, I used the wrong mix of flours, and the muffins crumbled apart when eating them.
Gluten-based muffins with baking powder bubble up in the baking process to produce tall, runway model muffins. Gluten-free flours, unable to capture and retain those bubbles in the same way, fail to produce a muffin worthy of a standing ovation on visual merits alone. However, with the right combo of gluten-free flours, it's possible to achieve a delicious muffin with agreeable lift and texture that won’t leave you longing.
The trick for me was relying on a base of gluten-free oat flour, which lends a sturdy structure and earthy texture to muffins (like a bowl of oatmeal!). It also pairs nicely with my two favorites, coconut and almond flour. The cinnamon, ginger, and clove combo spices up each bite. Coconut palm sugar, which I use instead of white sugar, lends a nutty flavor and lowers the muffin's glycemic load. This is not a muffin to tolerate because it's healthy. This is a muffin I want to nibble every day with a shot of strong espresso.
Gluten-free Raspberry Oat Muffins
1/2 cup Bob's Red Mill almond flour
1/2 cup Bob's Red Mill coconut flour*
1-1/2 cup Bob's Red Mill gluten-free oat flour
8 ounces raspberries
1 cup milk
3/4 cup coconut palm sugar
1/4 cup coconut oil
1/4 cup walnuts (optional)
4 tsp baking powder
3 tsp ground ginger
3 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp vanilla
1 pinch salt
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a KitchenAid or stand mixer with a paddle attachment, whisk the eggs until blended evenly. Add the coconut palm sugar and the coconut oil and whisk again until blended. Add the milk and vanilla and blend until smooth. In a separate bowl, mix together the coconut, almond, and oat flours. Add the baking powder, spices, and salt to the bowl and mix well.
With the KitchenAid on low speed, gradually mix in the flour with the wet ingredients until fully blended. Remove the paddle attachment and stir in the raspberries by hand until evenly mixed.
Spray a non-stick 12-cup muffin pan with canola oil spray. Fill each cup almost to the top, ensuring an even number of raspberries in each cup. Bake for 26 minutes or until just starting to brown on top.
*Variation: For a softer muffin, substitute 1/2 of the coconut flour (1/4 cup) with amaranth flour.
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